Civil Rights Trail: Birmingham, Alabama

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buildings and skyskrapers birmingham alabama civil rights trail
Downtown Birmingham by RJA1988 Pixabay

Why visit the Civil Rights Trail?

Birmingham, Alabama was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. One of the best ways to start fighting against racism is to arm yourself with knowledge.

Afterall… “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” –Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Civil Rights Movement Plaque in Civil Rights Institute Birmingham Alabama

When you learn about Black history in the United States, you understand better how racial discrimination is ingrained in our society.

The more you know, the better equipped you will be to make a difference. However, things won’t change easily, so we all need to do our part.

The best place to start? Birmingham!

Civil Rights National Monument

In 2017, the Birmingham Civil Rights District, located in downtown Birmingham, was proclaimed a National Monument by President Barack Obama.

Undoubtedly, this monument is a great place to start on the Birmingham Civil Rights Trail, which includes the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park, the 16th Street Baptist Church, and the AG Gaston Motel. Also, the Bethel Baptist Church in the nearby Collegeville neighborhood is part of the monument.

The history and importance of each of these places is essential in understanding the scope and reach of the Civil Rights Movement.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Ideally located next door to the AG Gaston Motel and across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is an excellent starting point on the Civil Rights Trail in Birmingham.

Timeline of the Civil RIghts Movement
Civil Rights Institute Birmingham: The Civil Rights Movement through the 1950's

All of the important events during the Civil Rights Movement are presented in the artifacts, photos, and timelines at the Institute.

While the focus is on those events that occurred in Alabama, it also provides snapshots of the greater national movement as well.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute Alabama
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama

The curators pull together the history and personal stories of the city’s tragic past with the goal to provide healing and a better outlook for the future.

Consequently, they visually bring to life the daily struggles and inequities of the segregated South. You can clearly see this in the photos below.

Black teachers had roughly twice the number of students as white teachers in 1944

Segregated Education System

Then

The education system is one small slice of the very large pie of systemic racism. For example, Black teachers were paid less and had roughly twice the number of students in their classrooms as white teachers.

Additionally, there were vast differences between Black schools and white schools. The latter were much more well-funded providing better buildings, textbooks, and well…everything.

Now

Although there are no longer segregated schools in America, there are still inequities; schools in mostly white, affluent areas are still better funded than schools in poorer neighborhoods with mostly Black and Brown people.

Of course, this is related to redlining and federal government housing segregation that occurred throughout the nation. We have work to do! The fight for equality is far from over.

Hot Tip

I suggest going to this museum first before going to the park, church, or motel.

Please visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute website for up-to-date information on their hours and how to get tickets.

There is free parking behind the building.

Kelly Ingram Park

view of kelly ingram park from civil rights institute and photo of children being blasted with high power water hoses
View of Kelly Ingram Park from Civil Rights Institute -- exhibit photo shows children blasted with high-powered water hoses
Sculpture Children in Jail I ain't afraid of your jail
"I ain't afraid of your jail."

This park was the center of civil rights demonstrations including the Children’s Crusade over several days in May 1963. They gathered at the 16th Street Church and marched against racial injustice.

Incredulously, the youth were met with brutality and violence by law enforcement and the fire department under the authority of the segregationist (i.e., racist) public safety commissioner. Several statues and sculptures in the park bring this to life.

These monuments evoke the scenes of children being arrested and the unleashing of high-powered water hoses and vicious police dogs.

Reportedly, more than 2,000 school-aged children were put in jail. Simultaneously, all of this was seen around the world in the news which brought the Civil Rights Movement to the forefront. 

Photo of young Black demonstrator during the Children's Crusade
Exhibit at the Civil Rights Institute: Police dog attacking a demonstrator
Path between vicious police dogs in a sculpure
Police dogs unleashed...

Kelly Ingram Park is on the National Register of Historic Places.

When you visit, you can access a free audio tour by calling 205.307.5455 on your mobile phone.

Civil Rights Tours

16th Street Baptist Church

The 16th Street Baptist Church is located across the street from the Civil Rights Institute.

This church was at the center of the Civil Rights Movement as it was a meeting place before marches and demonstrations.

16th Street Baptist Church Birmingham Alabama
16th St Baptist Church

On Sunday, September 15, 1963, three members of the terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan, bombed the church.

In brief, they injured 20 people and murdered four young girls: Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson (shown below).

To make matters worse, the white supremacists responsible for this heinous crime were not brought to justice until 40 years later.

AG Gaston Motel

AG Gaston Motel Postcards
AG Gaston Motel Postcards by Dystopos via Flickr: Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Then

This historic civil rights landmark was opened in 1954 by Birmingham’s first Black millionaire, AG Gaston. It served as safe, high quality accommodation and dining for Black locals and travelers alike.

Later, in 1963, it became the headquarters for the Civil Rights Movement. That year, Room #30 became Martin Luther King Jr’s “War Room” where he met with other civil rights leaders to plan marches, boycotts, and protests as part of the Project C direct action campaign against racial discrimination.

Key players in this campaign included Martin Luther King Jr, Reverend Fred L Shuttlesworth, and Reverend Ralph David Abernathy.

Through their efforts, the inequality and racial injustice experienced by the Black community was brought to the world stage. However, they were met with outrage, violence, police brutality, and a bombing under Room #30.

Sadly, the violence against the Black community continues today–more than 50 years later.

AG Gaston Motel Birmingham Alabama
The AG Gaston Motel, December 2021

Now

Currently, the AG Gaston Motel is being restored and is the cornerstone of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.

The exterior is once again an exquisite example of midcentury modern architecture and reflects the building as it was in the 1960s.

Bethel Baptist Church

While not within the borders of the Civil Rights District, this church is an important part of the Black community’s fight for equality in Birmingham.

Listed as a National Historic Landmark, this church was the headquarters of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights led by pastor Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.

He worked with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr and other leaders to organize nonviolent protests, freedom rides, and direct action, all of which led to desegregation of the South.

 

Alabama banned the NAACP
ACMHR at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, AL
Bethel Baptist Church red bricks
Bethel Baptist Church, Headquarters of ACMHR

Sadly, the church and parsonage (which was destroyed) were bombed three times in response to the good work they were doing.

Visit the Historic Bethel Church website for information about hours and tours.

Final Thoughts: Civil Rights Trail — Birmingham, Alabama

In closing, I’ve only scratched the surface of the enormity of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama. There is nothing like visiting these places in person as it is life changing.

Obviously, facing the truth of our troubled past isn’t easy. But it’s so very important. Even though it is emotionally draining, everyone should experience it.

In George Santayana’s words, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Need a place to stay in Birmingham, Alabama?

We stayed in North Birmingham at the Holiday Inn & Suites Fultondale, but there are lots of great options (see the map below).



Booking.com

Need to rent a car?

What’s Nearby?

You will need to take a break from the Civil Rights Trail as it is a lot to take in. I highly recommend the Birmingham Botanical Gardens — a beautiful place for peaceful reflection.

It is free and open year round.

Here are some other notable attractions:

  • Vulcan Park & Museum
  • Birmingham Museum of Art
  • Birmingham Zoo
  • Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark
  • Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum

Until next time…

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